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Snap elections loom ahead of midnight deadline for coalition efforts

Compromise seems off the table as Knesset session on dissolution bill begins; Likud minister says Liberman no longer part of the right; Meretz chief plans filibuster

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head, Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head, Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)

The Knesset at noon on Wednesday began a session that could culminate in the final two votes on a bill to dissolve parliament and call new elections, amid an ongoing impasse that has prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a coalition.

Theoretically, the Likud-drafted motion to dissolve the Knesset could still be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found. The prime minister has until midnight to announce a new coalition, and his bid to call elections — the second national ballot in a matter of months — seemed geared to prevent the president from tasking someone else with forming a government.

As members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and MK Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party continued to blame each other for the crisis, parties not involved in the coalition talks threatened to filibuster the Knesset session to foil the dissolution and enable the possibility of another lawmaker being given a shot at coalition building.

“I don’t understand Liberman’s thinking,” Netanyahu complained to his prospective coalition partners on Wednesday, according to the Ynet news site. “He appears to have decided to stay outside of the government and is dragging us all to elections.”

Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid a stalemate between Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.

Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin speaks in the Knesset, May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Likud party told Army Radio on Wednesday that “Liberman can no longer be considered part of the right-wing bloc.”

He warned that if elections are held, the right will punish Liberman by excluding him from a future government.

“Someone who prevents a right-wing government will not be part of it any more,” he declared.

Elkin argued that Liberman, whose party has just five Knesset seats, should not expect the ultra-Orthodox parties, which together have 16 seats, to capitulate to his demands. “He has rejected dozens of offers,” he said.

Hitting back at Elkin, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer said that Likud had abandoned its ethos and was selling out to the ultra-Orthodox.

“The party that I know is disappearing,” he said, also speaking to Army Radio. “The behavior of its members in the negotiations has shown that this is not the Likud of the national camp, but one that sells out on everything just for another minute in power.

“If people still don’t understand that we are a party with principles and we won’t give up on them then they have a problem with reading comprehension,” Forer added.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer seen during a faction meeting in the Knesset, on December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Meanwhile, MK Tamar Zandberg, who leads the left-wing Meretz party, said Wednesday that the opposition would filibuster the Knesset debate on the dissolution bill to prevent it coming up for its final votes before the expiration of the midnight deadline for Netanyahu to announce a coalition. At that point, she said, President Reuven Rivlin could tap another prospective prime minister.

However, the coalition has the power to limit the opposition’s debate time under Knesset regulations.

“We are prepared to filibuster for three days, which is the maximum time during which the president can task another MK with forming a government,” she tweeted.

Zandberg added that if attempts were made to limit the speeches of opposition lawmakers, they would seek the intervention of the Supreme Court.

Likud lawmakers were told to be in the Knesset from noon Wednesday, in case the opposition withdrew its objections and they would be forced to vote early, Hebrew media reported.

Meretz party leader MK Tamar Zandberg at a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill that passed its first reading last July, during the previous Knesset.

That version of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

Holding another election so soon after the previous national vote, on April 9, would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.

In a Facebook post shortly before midnight Tuesday — just 24 hours before the deadline — Liberman said that in all his years in Israeli politics he had never experienced such pressure.

“I thought I had seen it all, but I was shocked in the last two days from the power of the pressure, the paranoia and the speculation I have been exposed to almost every minute,” he wrote.

Liberman reiterated that he was not refusing to join the government out of some “vendetta” or a quest to bring down Netanyahu. He also said he was not against the ultra-Orthodox community but was fighting against the establishment of a theocracy in Israel.

On Monday evening, as lawmakers prepared the dissolution bill, Netanyahu upped the pressure on Liberman, imploring him in a live TV address to put “the good of the nation above every other interest” in order to avert “expensive, wasteful” elections.

He said the dispute over the ultra-Orthodox draft bill was a matter of “cosmetics” and “semantics” that by no means justified calling new elections. “You don’t hold elections over cosmetics,” Netanyahu said from the Knesset.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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